Friday, January 29, 2010

Hope (?) for Reading and Writing in Public Schools...

In my post yesterday, I talked about the methods I used to get my son Ryan to love reading and writing after public school had squashed his interest. Click here to read yesterday's post. Today I am going to answer the question, "What happens to a homeschooled kid who loves to read and write when you send him back to public school?"

First, I suppose I must answer the question, "If homeschooling is so great, why would I ever send my kid back to public school?" I did it because I had to in order to keep my kid sane. We moved to this area about six months ago and immediately connected with several homeschool groups in this area. Problem was, the groups served mainly kids under the age of twelve which left my thirteen year old son basically high and dry in the friendship department. Granted, he did meet some great kids his age, but due to distance we were only able to get together for a few hours each week. It seems both here and in Chicago, the pool of teenaged homeschoolers is small which results in them deciding to attend school to take advantage of being around those their age.

So, in order to meet Ryan's social needs, he went off to middle school after the winter break. While he was immediately embraced by the school community which allowed him to meet kids right away, he found the reading and writing rules and expectations to be lacking in freedom and very much like his 4th grade public school.
In the second week of school, Ryan was given an assignment in social studies where they are studying Aztec culture. He was told how long the paper had to be, and that it had to be in first person journal format. He was told the name of the character he was to write about, what his occupation was, and the five different topics he had to cover within the body of the journal. From these requirements, Ryan found it difficult to be creative or get excited about the act of writing. He was essentially falling victim to what happens in schools all across America when kids are asked to write about a topic they are removed from.

John Holt in his book, "What do I do on Monday" quotes James Moffett whom explains it best:

Almost all the writing we ask students to do in school is of a very distant kind- writing to a far, almost a nonexistent audience, about far subjects. No matter how wide a variety of essay topics we may assign, no matter how often we tell students that they may pick their own topics, the student is always in the same position. The discourse is always of one kind. This makes writing dull for the students, and makes their writing dull for those who have to read it.
John Holt goes on to talk in his book about what needs to be done in schools to offer up positive writing experiences:

We cannot teach children "the skill of writing" in a vacuum of ideas and feelings, by having them write exercises or essays that we think are good for them, and then expect them to take that "skill" and begin to use it to write something important. They can only learn to write well by trying to write, for themselves, or other people they want to reach, what they feel is important.

I have seen this at work in my son. When he was being homeschooled, he felt connected to the topics he wrote about and as a result his writing was fresh and creative and he felt excited to share his stories. Now that he is back in school, he feels disconnected from his writing. When asked to write his Aztec journal, he was initially excited and full of ideas for the story, but soon grew frustrated when he realized the constraints his teacher put on the piece. I asked Ryan to make the story his own while taking into consideration his teacher's expectations, but it didn't matter, most of his real creativity and ideas went out the window with the rules he had to follow.
The kids in Ryan's social studies class have been reading their Aztec journals aloud in class. Boring renditions of "I am a trader, I eat maize, I like to hunt for my goods" Ryan is amazed at the lack of creativity put forth. I explain to him that this is the sort of writing done by kids expected to follow the rules, kids whom have not been able to write on topics they love. Writing for them has become drudgery.

I worry about Ryan and wonder what will happen to this writing as he spends time in public school. The good news is that there is a movement afoot which is trying to get schools to take a hard look at how they teach writing. The National Writing Project is trying to improve writing in the nation's schools and have identified the requirements of a good writing program. A program that encourages authentically taught writing over writing which is simply assigned. While the changes this program brings about may not reach my son's school for quite some time (if ever!) it makes me hopeful that these initiatives will allow kids in public schools to have more freedom in their writing. Offering them connections to what they write about, which in turn will make for creative and confident life long writers.

No comments: